Quality of Woodcut Craftsmanship

Rusty Neon

The 1760 Conver has, relatively speaking, quite good quality woodcut images.

On the other hand, other decks of similar vintage -- e.g., the Viéville deck and the 1701 Dodal TdM -- have noticeably less-skillfully executed woodcut images. In those decks, the image details (especially in the pip cards) are not symmetrical and balanced where they should be. Round shapes come off as ovals or as irregular circles.

I'm curious why (compared to the 1760 Conver), those other woodcut images (e.g., the Viéville and Dodal) are less-skillfully executed. Is the 1760 Conver just a pleasant exception? Is it a question of difficulty of wood cutting? Does it have anything to do with time and effort? Perhaps, for financial reasons, the artists didn't want to spend too much time on images that are a large set (78) of images that in total would not sell for much? One can especially see that the woodcut quality in the Viéville and Dodal drop off dramatically in the numbered minor arcana (yet the quality of the numbered minor arcana in the Conver is almost on par with that of the major arcana and court cards).

Thanks for any replies.


As I actually know one or two of the last woodcut artists in Prague I've often wished that people would look more at the actual process and technicalities of this technique. It seems to me that here on AT we sometimes see aspects of the old woodcut decks assigned a false significance, when in fact some of the oddities are simply by-products of the technique.

Woodcut is slow, and therefore it's expensive. The blocks also deteriorate over time, and although they can be mended, in the mending there may also be some deterioration. The blocks have to be stored very carefully, and I would assume that in older times when houses were damp, this may have been more of a problem (on the other hand central heating is, nowadays, probably the real enemy of older blocks).

All this means that it's usually hard to make money from woodblock prints - unless you work unusually fast. I would tend to assume that the real master craftsmen of the technique probably did not do card blocks (78 items - it's a lot - you would be likely to make a lot more money from doing fewer items in a more detailed way) - but it's the kind of thing that I suspect there is very little research on.

Certainly, in some of the older decks we are simply seeing poor technique - in my opinion. We are probably looking at work that was not done by the best people, that was executed quickly, and that was perhaps re-used long after the blocks were at their best (I also agree with the speculation on other threads that some of the images - though not the actual blocks - were re-used from other projects - it's all a matter of time and money for the artist/craftsman and the woodblack artists I see do resuse familiar figures in their work - again and again in many cases).

I still of course like many of these images - but I don't fool myself into thinking that they were done with huge attention to detail.

I'd be very interested to hear what others think.


Another thought...

The cutters were possibly limited by the type of wood provided. Some woods allow for more intricate carving and better quality printing. My guess is that craftsmen were limited by available resources such as the different species of trees in different regions and potentially also limited by what supplies were provided, if any, by those who've commissioned/hired them to do the carving.

Related thought -- some of the differences will revolve around the quality of inks too, and how the inks interacted with the carving. Better quality inks can handle more detailed carving.


Pear wood is the normal wood of choice for fine carving. I would guess that was pretty widely available, but perhaps not?

Another factor of course is how many prints you take from each block, and at what speed - I would guess that if cards were turned out quickly and at quantity (was this the case? for economic reasons it seems likely) that many of the prints would have been flawed.


Quiet Revolutionaries

I think there may have been an element of moving from town to town, and creating new decks along the way. So few survive that the ones we see are very individualistic, like the Dodal. Where some of the Dodal cards may seem crude, we can see from others that here was a budding young master craftsman, working very smoothly ~ and with a great sense of fun. By creating new decks the artist/revolutionaries kept the Tarot alive, and by keeping the style simple, it could remain inconspicuous to any nervous authorities. And there would be a happy printer producing copies for sale, nothing so elaborate as to incur heavy taxation, and ordinary enough to find comfortable homes.


Hmmn, curious implications Fulgour, I'd be interested to hear you elaborate although perhaps that would be off-topic :D


One way I gained a deeper appreciation of woodcut decks was to print out images in gray scale and trace over the lines. It gave me a feel for the artist at work. Creativity and problem solving go hand in hand, and individual style adds a very personal touch. And then there is the question of motive. Who were these artists, and why did they create such intricate and very meaningful Tarot cards? The creative skill and expressive intellect of our ancient friends is still very alive in their work, and if they were trying to keep something sacred alive, to save it from oblivion, my experience has been that they succeeded.